Susan Wise Bauer
Two years ago, we buried my grandmother in the family graveyard, in the middle of a cornfield. Overtop of the old Confederate soldier graves, the funeral home director set out rows of folding metal chairs for the relatives, and my cousin mowed down the corn around the graveyard's edge so that friends could stand and listen. Just before the minister began the service, a statuesque black woman with a close cap of hair and platform shoes came through the field and sat down at the end of the relatives' row: the only black woman in a cluster of white faces. I didn't recognize her, until my mother leaned forward and whispered, "There's your sister."
My grandmother always gave special presents to my sister, the odd one out, the child who didn't fit. My white parents adopted my sister when she was three days old and I was almost one. She grew up with European features and dark skin, the heritage of her unknown African American father and her teenaged white mother. We fought all our lives; I was the good girl, while my sister smoked cigarettes, carried on long secretive phone conversations with boys after she was supposed to be in bed, and ignored all the limits my parents set. But I didn't think of our constant bickering as a manifestation of racial tension. She was my sister.
She stopped being my sister sometime in the middle of our college education. At a small Baptist college, she found herself in a militant group of black students who told her that she needed to break the bonds with her white family in order to realize her own black identity. She broke with us: with relief, with joy.
After that I never again had a conversation with her that did not end in race. All of our disagreements became crystallized into this single point: You were happy and I wasn't, because you are white and I am black. You're white, and you will never understand. After one particularly spectacular fight, not long after I got married, I stopped calling, stopped writing, stopped trying. We didn't see each other for seven years, until the day she arrived at my grandmother's funeral.
After the ceremony, I told her I was sorry for my own lack of sensitivity. I apologized for ignoring her difficulties as she grew up in a white family. I apologized for trying to force her into my mold.
I apologized for being white.
For years, I rejected that relationship-killing accusation: Your Whiteness is a wall between us. After all, I am a person of good will who truly believes that all men and women are made in the image of God. I teach African American authors in my American literature classes. I live in a neighborhood which is mostly black. I pick up black hitchhikers, out here on my country road. My sister is black.
And yet, over the past few years, I've begun to realize that something is adrift in my life. I have few black friends; my rural church is entirely white; my immediate neighbors are white; I rarely have a black student in my American literature classes. In my eagerness to demonstrate my lack of prejudice, I find myself reacting to the African American clerk in the drugstore, the housekeeping staff at the university, the black linguistics professor down the hall, with the insincerity that W. E. B. Du Bois chronicled with deadly perception in his 1903 classic, The Souls of Black Folk:
Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my own town … or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested … as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.
A hundred years later, I find myself uttering the same words, updated: Doesn't the whole South Carolina confederate flag thing drive you crazy? Or, By the way, my sister is black. I grope awkwardly— and unsuccessfully—to make a connection, to say without using the words: I see you as a human being. I reject racism. I am not prejudiced.
I behave, in fact, like any well-educated, good-intentioned, middle-class woman afflicted by Whiteness.
In the last two years I've become increasingly willing to consider the part Whiteness plays in my life. Not coincidentally, I've also spent the last two years finishing my Ph.D. in American Studies. Whiteness was born in academia; "Whiteness studies" exploded in the 1990s, fueled by a growing discontent with the de facto segregation of American university campuses. African American Studies departments study black America, but don't have much interaction with the history and religion departments that are scrutinizing white America. Black students flee from "regular" literature courses and enroll in courses on black literature, taught by black faculty. Amiable middle-class college students, raised to understand that any display of prejudice is in bad taste, nevertheless eat, sleep, and entertain themselves apart.
University cafeterias are the showplace for this voluntary ghettoization: "There's a sea of pink and peach faces … all gathered around the front tables by the salad bar," observes Princeton Theological Seminary student Sarah Hinlicky in First Things. "Look farther back and at the other end of the room, by the cereal and the back door, all the brown and black faces together." Despite the civil rights revolution, the last wall between the races—the social wall—remains thick and high.
White students, knowing their own good will, have felt that the segregation is voluntary. "It's embarrassing, like Rosa Parks on the bus, except the other way around," Hinlicky writes. "We don't care to sit in the front with you, thanks, we'll retreat to the back on our own." But scholars of race, unhappy with a solution that shifts the blame onto students of color, have come up with another explanation. Whites have made it impossible for students of color to take full part in university culture—not by acting prejudiced, but simply by acting white.
For those who have difficulty wrapping their brains around the concept of Whiteness, Unitarian theologian Thandeka suggests the Race Game. The Game has only one rule: use the term "white" whenever you mention the name of a European American friend or relative, as in "My white husband John told me . …" Thandeka in vented the Race Game when a white colleague of hers at Smith College asked her, over lunch, what it felt like to be black. "I guaranteed her," she writes in Learning to be White: Money, Race and God in America, "that if she [played the Race Game] for a week and then met me for lunch, I could answer her question using terms she would understand. We never had lunch together again. Apparently my suggestion had made her uncomfortable."
This discomfort, Thandeka explains, comes from the nature of Whiteness; it is the racial identity which never has to speak its name. "Whiteness" is the invisible norm against which all other cultural groups are defined. Among all racial groups—African-American, Native American, Hispanic American, Asian American—only whites are "assumed not to 'have race,' " observes David Roediger, one of the leading theorists of Whiteness. American culture, George Lipsitz writes, is "obviously white culture"; to speak of the "American people" is to imply white people, unless a qualifier is inserted (as in "the black vote"). Mainstream America is white; Benjamin Franklin, Emily Dickinson, and John Grisham are at the center, while Frederick Douglass and Frances Harper are sideshows. ("What about Oprah?" is not, according to scholars of race, an appropriate question to ask at this point.)
Whiteness is responsible for the cafeteria separation, because black students, cast in among whites, feel the pressure of an invisible unspoken norm and retreat from it, creating enclaves within which they are the norm and whites are the outsiders. Whiteness studies aims to break down this impasse by making the "unspoken" racial identity of whites obvious. All Americans, not just minorities, have a racial identity that shapes them. The first commandment of Whiteness studies, coming before all others, is: Recognize that you are not colorless; you are the color white. And the second, like unto the first, is: Your color has distorted your view of the world.
Who is white?
So who is white? Simply, those who are untainted by any other color. American literature is full of stories of "passing," in which light-skinned, European-featured heroes and heroines nurture a dark secret: They are actually black. In Frances Harper's 1893 novel Iola Leroy, a beautiful girl discovers upon the death of her white father that her mother was actually part Negro. Because she's now legally black, Iola can be enslaved; she's tempted south by an unscrupulous lawyer and sold as a "house slave." Later, freed by Union soldiers, Iola adjusts to her new identity. She turns her back on the white identity that has been hers for twenty years and "becomes black," dedicating herself to "the uplift of my people" and even refusing to marry the virtuous white doctor who courts her:
"Doctor, were I your wife, are there not people who would caress me as a white woman who would shrink from me in scorn if they knew I had one drop of Negro blood in my veins? When mistaken for a white woman I should hear things alleged against the race at which my blood would boil. No, Doctor, I am not willing to live under a shadow of concealment which I thoroughly hate as if the blood in my veins were an undetected crime of my soul."
While Harper's novel valorizes Iola for facing up to the "truth" of her "blackness," rather than taking the easy way out and "pretending" to be white, James Weldon Johnson's Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, published 26 years later, castigates a light-skinned man for choosing to pass as white in order to make life simpler for his children: "I cannot repress the thought," the narrator writes mournfully, in the book's concluding paragraph, "that, after all, I have chosen the lesser part, that I have sold my birthright for a mess of pottage."
But the blackness of both characters is a social myth. They lived in the shadow of the infamous "one-drop" law, first formulated in the antebellum South to keep the children of white and black unions in slavery. According to the one-drop rule, a person with any black blood was legally black; no amount of white dilution could bring such a Negro back into the fold of white identity.
This blackness was a creation of law, not of biology. And although we've outgrown the one-drop rule, what was true of Iola Leroy (with her one-sixteenth black heritage) is still true of my sister, who is biologically less than half African American. My sister is black only because of a social convention that had its birth in that unjust legal system. In America today, a person with any black features is black, not white, even if they were raised in white culture and have a predominance of white genetic material.
Whiteness, in other words, isn't a "real" racial identity. It's a negative characteristic: Whiteness is the complete absence of any racial characteristics that are not Euro-American. We live in a society where, since before the Civil War, Whiteness has been created and maintained to keep privilege where it belongs: out of the hands of non-Europeans.
Unlike blackness, Whiteness isn't obvious to those who have been raised in it. White children are brought up to believe that white is, simply, normal; being white is, in Geoffrey Fowler's words, a "non-experience." But according to race scholars, the non-experience of Whiteness is, in fact, something rather sinister. White children, writes Thandeka, are all "socialized into a system of values that holds in contempt differences from the white community's ideals." The price of Whiteness is the rejection of all non-white emotions, ways of knowing, traditions, and interpretations of history.
Although nonwhites can identify this massive unspoken prejudice, naming it for what it is, the only way America can break her racial stalemate— so the Whiteness theorists say—is for white people to recognize and reject their invisible racial identity. A massive re-education program is America's only hope. But who is qualified to take on the enormous job of guiding an entire generation into a new way of thinking?
Why, university administrators and faculty, of course; those same folks who are currently presiding over the cafeterias where whites and blacks eat on opposite sides of the room.
College has long been a place where racial identities are provided to young, passionate people who weren't aware that their identities were incomplete. At university, my sister learned that she could be black and free herself from her white family. Scores of memoirs re cord the same phenomenon.
In Beyond the Whiteness of Whiteness: A Memoir of a White Mother of Black Sons, Jane Lazarre describes her upbringing in the "the subculture of the American Left," where she was taught that "slavery and racism sit at the heart of American experience, a cruel mockery of the idea and practice of democracy." Lazarre, a Jewish woman, had two sons with her African American husband and raised them with care and sensitivity. So she was legitimately startled when her son Khary came home from his first year of college and explained repeatedly to his mother that he was not biracial, not Jewish, but black. "He goes on to explain his beliefs and feelings in detail," Lazarre writes, "and when I say, 'I understand,' he tells me carefully, gently, 'I don't think you do, Mom. You can't understand this completely because you're white.'"
Though saddened, Lazarre is willing to accept that the university knows best:
At first, I am slightly stunned, by his vehemence and by the idea. … I have used the experience of motherhood to try to comprehend the essential human conflict between devotion to others and obligations to the self. … Now, standing in a darkened hallway facing my son, I feel exiled from my not-yet-grown child. … What is this Whiteness that threatens to separate me from my own child? Why haven't I seen it lurking, hunkering down, encircling me in some irresistible fog?
With the help of her college-educated sons, Lazarre begins to understand the part that Whiteness has played in her well-intentioned life. Even her progressive upbringing, she writes, is part of her "miseducation as a white American."
In the PBS documentary American Love Story, another mixed family spends a year in front of the camera: Bill and Karen, black and white, have lived together for 20 years, been married for a decade, and are raising two light-skinned black daughters. In Episode 3, oldest daughter Cicely goes off to Colgate after a childhood in which she was taught to think of herself as an individual, not black or white. "When I see other kids who are biracial, or multiracial families," she tells the camera, "I see people who are totally Afrocentric or who want to be white. And they're just really messed up. I am Cicely." But she doesn't get through college without facing up to her racial identity. "That answer would have done," she muses, "—that was sufficient for me through high school and the first year of college. But now: I am still Cicely, but I am multiracial as well."
Cicely tries to include both black and white students within her circle of friends but finds herself continually pressured to reject her white heritage in order to be "fully black." Her Colgate classmates, interviewed by filmmaker Jennifer Fox, are emphatic: "You have to choose," Edwin tells us. He's a heavy, intense boy, speaking straight to the camera. "If you want to be down, you have to choose that you are black. The line had to be drawn. You have to be down with us or not down with us. You have to be one or the other. You couldn't be both." His own coffee-with-cream skin shows clear evidence of white heritage, but the irony is apparently lost on him.
Another of Cicely's classmates, a young black woman wearing African dress, says with apparent incredulity, "Cicely is almost proud of it. I mean … I didn't think I could—I mean, there's no way I could ever relate to her, you know, because we didn't come from the same people."
Cicely, who takes up smoking halfway through Episode 3 and has a cigarette in her hand for most of the interviews that follow, finds this pressure to choose almost unendurable. "I wasn't really friends with the black community at Colgate," she says gloomily. "They think I'm an ignorant person trying to be white or something, you know. … Maybe I was brought up in an idealistic household. Maybe that's affecting me now."
Cicely and Khary are both are at least half white, but the black community around them rejects any claim they might lay to Whiteness; this would be a pretense, "trying to be white." Cicely's white friends think that she is suffering because of the inflexibility of the black students. "It seems," one of her white Colgate classmates says, tentatively, "that a lot of the tension came from the black students … not the white students."
It might seem reasonable to approach black students about this tension created by an iron-fisted insistence on absolute racial identity. But universities, influenced by the growing field of Whiteness studies, have instead chosen to focus their re-education efforts on white students. After all, blacks have simply internalized the white-created definition of race: Whiteness is that which excludes all blackness, so all students with any African blood must be black.
The re-education begins even before classes start. White, middle-class freshmen, arriving at orientation ready to learn about meal plans and the dubious authority of resident assistants, are also treated to sensitivity exercises about their Whiteness. This trend, notes Heather MacDonald in the Wall Street Journal, stems from the university's conviction that freshmen need
political re-education. Columbia's assistant dean for freshmen, Kathryn Balmer, explained that "you can't bring all these people together and say, 'Now be one big happy community,' without some sort of training. … It isn't an ideal world, so we need to do some education." This education enlightens students about their white racial identity, and then encourages them to "acknowledge oneself as the oppressor."
In "Thought Reform 101," Alan Charles Kors chronicles this university re-programming:
At Wake Forest University last fall, one of the few events designated as "mandatory" for freshman orientation was attendance at Blue Eyed, a filmed racism awareness workshop in which whites are abused, ridiculed, made to fail, and taught helpless passivity so that they can identify with "a person of color for a day." In Swarthmore College's dormitories, in the fall of 1998, first-year students were asked to line up by skin color, from lightest to darkest, and to step forward and talk about how they felt concerning their place in that line. … [This orientation assumes that] white students desperately need formal "training" in racial and cultural awareness. … [They] "have to be trained as allies". … [A]n "ally" is someone from "the dominant group" who is aware of and articulates his unmerited privilege.
This re-education of white students excludes no one. Kors writes that sensitivity instructor Jane Elliot (producer of Blue Eyed) began a lecture at Kansas State University by explaining that
all whites are racists, whatever they believe about themselves: "If you want to see another racist, turn to the person on your right. Now look at the person on your left."
No matter how much good will you find in yourself, if you're an American of European ancestry, you have been corroded by Whiteness.
Does re-education work? Have universities become the birthplace of a new America, one where racial divisions begin to lose their hard edges because whites admit their part in creating racial identities? Sensitivity exercises have been common place on American campuses since at least 1996. How do the cafeterias look now?
Well, pretty much like they did before scholars of Whiteness set their re-education program in motion.
This is part one of a two-part essay. Next issue: No Exit?
Susan Wise Bauer is the author of two novels and, with her mother, Jessie Wise, coauthor of The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home (Norton). She teaches literature at the College of William & Mary.
Books discussed in this essay
W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903).
Geoffrey Fowler, "Of Nude Pantyhose and Storybook Dreams: A Wake Up Call to White America." Diversity & Distinction Online, Vol. 3, No. 2 (Winter 1998).
Jennifer Fox, American Love Story. Zohe Film Productions, 1999.
Frances Harper, Iola Leroy (1893).
Sarah Hinlicky, "Don't Write About Race." First Things, December 1999, pp. 9-11.
James Weldon Johnson, Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1919).
Alan Charles Kors, "Thought Reform 101." Reason Online, March 2000.
Jane Lazarre, Beyond the Whiteness of Whiteness: A Memoir of a White Mother of Black Sons (Duke Univ. Press, 1996).
George Lipsitz, "The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: Racialized Social Democracy and the 'White' Problem in American Studies." American Quarterly, Vol. 47, No. 3 (September 1995), pp. 369-87.
Heather MacDonald, "Orientation." Wall Street Journal, September 19, 1992.
David R. Roediger, Towards the Abolition of Whiteness (Verso, 1994).
Thandeka, Learning to be White: Money, Race and God in America (Continuum), 1999.
Copyright © 2000 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture Magazine.
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